Women’s History Month: A Focus on Girls, Women and the Justice System

Lisa Pasko
University of Denver
GUEST ENTRY, Women and Criminal Justice series


On International Women’s Day, I celebrated the occasion by attending a US law school panel about incarcerated women. Sharing the virtual room with law school students, legal advocates for prison reform and decarceration, and formerly incarcerated women, I listened to continuous accounts of the personal, community, and state violence experienced and witnessed by women in prison. As I shared my two decades of research of justice-impacted girls, I realized a disheartening truth. While we can find examples of programs that have worked well for incarcerated girls and women, our investment remains not nearly enough. The narratives I collected at the turn of the century are still the narratives of today.
While the United States has the world’s highest female incarceration rate by far (127 per 100,000), we are certainly not alone in jailing girls and women. Regrettably, some of the world has also followed suit. Currently, more than 700,000 girls and women are detained in penal institutions worldwide, with the United States assuming nearly a third of them. This number represents a 50% increase in global female incarceration in the past 20 years, with the Americas, Asia, and Oceania areas seeing three to five times the increase of their general population growth (Institute for Criminal Policy Research, World Prison Brief, 2020). In southeastern Asia alone, the number of girls and women in prison has risen 600%.
Yet, many of these girls and women have not actually been found guilty of a criminal offense. In the United States, for example, more than 100,000 women reside in local jails, where the majority are awaiting trial for property, drug, and public order offenses and are unable to secure bond release funds. Likewise, girls often find themselves detained for technical violations of their probation or for status offenses, such as running away, truancy, smoking cigarettes, or out after curfew, rarely for serious violent offenses.
For those women who are incarcerated or committed for serious law violations, we often see a life trajectory of similar turning points and events, including exposure to violence in the home and on the streets; sexual abuse, assault, and exploitation, sometimes at the hands of those they love and trust; intergenerational criminal justice involvement; issues with drug abuse and addiction; unaddressed medical and mental health crises; lack of educational and vocational opportunities; chronic housing and food insecurities; and survival sex and fractured, unhealthy romantic attachments. As girls and women become more system-involved and face jail and prison time, their experiences do not improve. With frequency, they report racism, sexism, and homophobia; staff who dislike working with them, do not trust them, and abuse them; lack of reproductive rights and freedom and difficulties in acquiring adequate health care; loss of family, especially their children; and an ever more punitive response even to the smallest of infractions, both inside and outside the system.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has made all of these struggles even more amplified. Not only do those girls and women who are behind bars face an enhanced risk of exposure to the virus, but, in many jurisdictions, also face a public health approach that ignores their realities and deprioritizes them for the vaccine. Their life course trajectories—which may include drug use and compromised health and immunity—also place them at greater risk of having long-haul effects, or even death. In the United States, the economic impacts that restrictions and quarantine have posed have made those on the margins even more vulnerable, have made housing and food more insecure, and have led to escalations in crime, violence, and alcohol and drug abuse. In my particular US state, opiate overdoses have increased by 300%, often because of fentanyl-laced Xanax people have acquired on the black market to address their magnified anxiety. Whereas justice-involved women have often used survival strategies of managing unstable partners in order to secure food and housing, COVID has made these trade-offs even more dangerous; reports of intimate partner abuse have risen dramatically over the past year.
For those system-impacted girls and women who are under community supervision and ordered to treatment and court appearances, navigating COVID and their requirements have become even more problematic. Lack of access to the necessary technology to successfully engage in online treatment groups have increased feelings of isolation, which hit girls and women particularly hard, given their higher reports of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The same lack of access has made virtual court appearances difficult to do as well, placing them at risk for non-completion and jail sanctions. Even completing the basic tasks of community supervision—such as urinalysis tests, visits with the probation/parole officers, and mandatory employment—often meant taking public transportation frequently, therefore increasing risk of exposure. It also often meant employment in lower-paid food service and nursing facility industries, where outbreaks have been the worst. For those women with school-aged children who are home learning remotely, the juggle between taking care of their children and completing employment requirements has also been stressful and difficult to manage. Such stressors precede the increase in alcohol and narcotics, which, if detected, lead to technical violations as well. COVID has interrupted all of our lives, but for system-impacted women, such interruptions have made surviving probation and parole even harder.
As we conclude Women’s History month, we must not forget these girls and women who often remain among our most invisible, neglected, and marginalized: those involved in our youth and criminal justice systems. Their narratives today, just as those decades ago, reflect unfathomable challenges and hurdles. Girls’ troubles, when ignored and untreated, often predict a pathway to crime and punishment, as they become young women. Without meaningful gender-responsive and culturally aware prevention and intervention programming, the strategies of girls and women to navigate their harsh realities of their everyday lives will come under the scrutiny of our systems of formal control and punishment, not care or support. If we are to respond fairly to their infractions, we must embrace solutions that dismantle the structures that perpetuate their criminal pathways and that foster a more just and equitable society.